Our pets and our health: Why we should take them seriously

It isn’t easy to get this topic taken seriously in the academic world. This topic is considered lighthearted and frivolous and does not belong in the legitimate field of health sciences. There is only fragmentary academic literature about the role of animals in mental health.

In various fields, such as criminology or psychology, we can find research that links human mental health with human-animal interactions and positive benefits.

Even after assembling the research, it isn’t easy to prove that pets are significant in any population group or area. Few health sciences consider the evidence sufficient to publish new papers. This is often due to a “lack of evidence.”

Companionship. Flickr/fotografierenderpunkCC BY

Also, we found that animal fields were reluctant to publish articles suggesting animals could be used as a resource to improve human health. It was viewed as devaluing the animals.

The problem of answers leads to a lack of published research and a perception of its unimportance. This perception influences the funding bodies’ views, and researchers find it difficult to obtain funding. This leads to a lack of research and an undeveloped field.

Can pets be good for us?

The fragmented literature suggests that pets play a major role in many people’s mental health. In terms of the importance of pets to health and wellbeing, the field of domestic abuse is most advanced.

Some women stay in violent relationships because their abuser threatens to harm their pets. When services that help women escape domestic violence do not allow pets, the women will remain with their pets. In response to these findings, some services have implemented pet-friendly approaches. The level of attachment women have with their pets could also be a way for them to cope or get support, regardless of whether they remain or not.

Pets are a source of unconditional love for young homeless people, and they have been reported to improve quality of life, reduce loneliness, and enhance well-being.

The needs of a pet can provide a reason for depressed pet owners to get up in the morning.

A reason to wake up early. Flickr/AmroCC BY

The companionship of pets can also improve the life quality of older people by reducing their loneliness, fear, and isolation.

Recent research has found that older people have not included pets in their stories about what improves their quality of life.

Researchers have found that some older people give up their pets before they reach retirement age because they fear they won’t be able to care for them or are worried about their pets in the event of their death.

If we don’t take pets into account when we think about and support older people, we could be causing some to suffer from loneliness and isolation. We need to find ways to help older pet owners and to ensure that pets don’t have to be given up when people are placed in full-time care. This process is currently ad-hoc and informal.

Pets do not always improve health and well-being just because people want them with them. The evidence does show that pets do help. PET scans, for example, show that dogs reduce stress, and most patients with cancer claim their pets assisted them in their treatment.

We are ignoring a valuable health-promoting tool by not considering pets to be a part of our wellbeing. It may be cheaper to explore and support the role pets play in the lives of humans and their health and have fewer negative side effects.

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